Martin Mbuguah’s story doesn’t start with how he has been painting since the age of 3.
You know those stories; we hear them all the time when an actress or singer is being interviewed. It seems like preschool is that magic age when most people begin to show off their creative talents.
Mbuguah’s creative story starts much later and is actually pretty funny.
The South Side High School student was taking a drawing class, but he would get done faster than the other students. As a result, he would oftentimes begin goofing off, to the annoyance of his teacher. His teacher tired of it, handed him some paints and told him to use them. And he did.
“I didn’t know I had that stuff in me,” he says of his painting.
And now, as a senior, Mbuguah is already racking up awards and preparing for his first solo show in June. He was just named a 2020 National YoungArts Foundation finalist in visual arts, the organization’s highest honor, and is the only artist from the Midwest named as a finalist in the category. In addition, he received four Gold Key and three Silver Key awards at the 2019 Scholastic Art Awards.
Mbuguah paints under the name toskago. The name comes from the Russian word “toska” that is roughly translated as sadness, melancholy and mournful, or a longing with nothing to long for.
Mbuguah liked the idea of one thing meaning so many different things. “I want my art to be the same way,” he says, adding that he wants those looking at his art to feel different emotions and different things.
An example is a recent painting called the “Haze of Delusion.” It is the second in a series that represents vulnerability, as well as a visual manifestation of confusion and delusion, Mbuguah says. The inspiration was from a friend who was going through a breakup and the fact that she said it was hard giving your heart to another, he says, which is why one of the subjects is having his heart ripped out. The subjects are actually two of Mbuguah’s friends.
He uses his friends quite often in his paintings. “I am inspired by people around me,” he says.
Most of his paintings, which are done in his home studio that was once his family’s dining room, are connected. He often uses items that appeared in his previous paintings in his current work. It’s an effort to give his fans something to look for and newcomers something to discover.
He also uses his African heritage as a basis for his art. He says African culture includes really proud storytellers and he uses that in his art, creating chapters of a larger visual story.
Mbuguah came to Fort Wayne from Kenya with his parents in 2006 when he was 5 years old. The family won a green card lottery which helped them travel to the U.S. Without it, Mbuguah says they might not have been able to come because it was too expensive to come to America. The family was able to stay with a family friend who lived in Fort Wayne.
His visual arts teacher, Jennifer Slone, the person who cured Mbuguah’s goofing off with paints, says Mbuguah has grown with his storytelling and natural talent in painting. “There was talent there,” she says. “He just didn’t understand how to use that talent.”
And while she has been Mbuguah’s art teacher since his freshman year, she hasn’t really instructed him on his painting. “I just let Martin go,” she says, laughing. “I could never paint like Martin paints.” His forte, she adds, is the life that he has lived, “I can’t relate.”
Slone talks about how proud she is of Mbuguah’s work and success. She describes his progression from colored pencil drawings, to acrylic paints and finally to his preferred medium of oil paints. He also researches artists and studies their work.
Mbuguah’s hope is to be the “best artist in the 21st century.” He sells his paintings on his Instagram account and does commission work as well. He is planning on going to college, but hasn’t decided which one. His goal is to major in business and finance to help him in his art career.
He is already thinking beyond college, however. His goal for his artwork is to use parts of his paintings in larger ways. “I am really inspired by movies,” Mbuguah says.
He wants to make his art cinematic, eventually taking pieces of his art, such as a hat or maybe a song that is inspired by his work, and add on to his visual story.
And he hopes one day, when he’s 95, all of his paintings will be in a big room and people can enjoy his entire story at once, he says.
He’s already working on Chapter One.
Terri Richardson writes about area residents and happenings that affect their lives in this column that publishes every other week. Email her at email@example.com or call 461-8304.